Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Lawmakers refuse to say how incumbent judges and D.A.’s fare in new maps; so we did it for you

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) said last week that the North Carolina House will pass legislation redrawing the maps under which state judges and district attorneys are elected without any information being made available to the public about how current judges and prosecutors will be impacted.

Lawmakers in the House Select Committee on Judicial Redistricting will vote on the new maps tomorrow, which will dramatically alter the districts in which judges and district attorneys across the state are elected. As of earlier today, they were set to vote on the maps without any idea of who would be affected, who would be “double-bunked,” who stands to lose their seat on the bench or which districts would be affected positively or negatively.

This stands in sharp contrast to when the General Assembly recently redrew legislative maps. At that time, lawmakers not only knew what district each of them would fall under, they actually considered incumbency protection as a criterion in the mapmaking process. [Read more…]

***Bonus read:

2. General Assembly stonewalling Cooper’s nominees to state Board of Education

Sandra Byrd has been a decorated North Carolina high school teacher in western North Carolina and an associate professor at UNC-Asheville, where she also served as assistant provost.

So she seemed a natural fit when Gov. Roy Cooper announced in May that Byrd was one of three new nominees for seats on the State Board of Education, North Carolina’s top public school board.

But as of today, nearly five months after Cooper’s proclamation, Byrd says she doesn’t know when, if ever, she’ll actually assume her duties on the board.

“I appreciate the governor’s confidence in me, and I am looking forward to serving on this board,” says Byrd. “But I don’t know when that will be.”

Byrd is one of three state board hopefuls caught, once again, in limbo with the N.C. General Assembly. Legislative confirmation is required under the state constitution for these powerful state board members, charged with administering state school initiatives and leading North Carolina’s 115 local school districts. But, despite no constitutional bounds on the time frame for confirmation, it was once a speedy process for most nominees, taking weeks or days.[Read more…]

***Bonus reads:

3. Demoted former DEQ chief contradicts department policy in national environmental journal

When Donald van der Vaart and John Evans ran the NC Department of Environmental Quality, they were not shy about expressing their anti-regulatory, pro-business philosophy. But now the former secretary and his chief deputy, who stayed at the agency in lesser roles after Roy Cooper was elected governor, have published a controversial article in a professional journal promoting views that not only clash with those of the current DEQ leadership, but also appear to flout its authority.

In the Environmental Law Reporter, van der Vaart and Evans shared the byline on a seven-page opinion piece calling for the repeal of a core tenet of the Clean Air Act, known as PSD, or Prevention of Significant Deterioration. For the past 45 years, the intention of PSD regulations have been to keep major polluters from eluding stricter emissions rules by moving into areas where the air is relatively clean. The industries could then sully the air in their new locations.

The two officials argue that the PSD is a form of “economic protectionism.” By requiring industries to further curb their emissions should they move into a cleaner locale, the PSD keeps them tethered to the “politically powerful” Northeast and Midwest, they wrote.

Ryke Longest, director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, said van der Vaart and Evans’ argument is “the flip side of environmental justice.”[Read more…]

4. Opposition to Confederate monument grows, but UNC officials decline to act

Dr. Altha Cravey, a tenured professor of Geography at UNC-Chapel Hill, knew she was unlikely to hear anything about the ongoing “Silent Sam” controversy at a high powered Tuesday gathering in Chapel Hill.

The meeting, with panels moderated by UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC alum Frank Bruni of the New York Times, was designed to tout UNC system President Margaret Spellings’ vision for the university and mark the 11th anniversary of the 2006 Spellings Commission Report that was issued during her tenure as U.S. education secretary.

“It was kind of love fest for Spellings — they never address real controversies and ongoing issues at these things,” Cravey said in an interview Wednesday. “I hoped that we would hear a little about this division on the UNC Board of Governors, but I knew we wouldn’t — and I knew we wouldn’t hear about Silent Sam.”

Cravey, a faculty member with a long history of activism, decided to take matters into her own hands. During Spellings’ keynote speech, Cravey wrote two hashtags on a piece of paper and raised them up from her table. [Read more…]

5. Charity and other on-the-cheap solutions won’t get the job done
The Right’s latest cynical efforts to undermine government and the common good

Many North Carolina conservatives have long pursued a cynical, ends-justify-the-means strategy when it comes to their ultimate goal of radically remaking the social contract. Here’s how it frequently plays out: First they complain incessantly that public institutions are inherently corrupt and inferior to the private sector; then they use this supposed “fact” as justification to slash public funding and/or sell off core public structures and systems to private interests. Soon, the whole process repeats itself as the self-perpetuating cycle plays out.

For a classic case-in-point, see the Right’s treatment of North Carolina’s public schools. First came the ceaseless drumbeat of complaints about a “broken” public education system and the “failure” of “government schools” and “mass education.” This was followed by years of funding cuts designed to curb “waste, fraud and abuse” and to force “education bureaucrats” to get their house in order. Next came the aggressive push for privatization in the form of vouchers and charters – accompanied, of course, by highly publicized (though frequently ephemeral) pledges to raise teacher pay, even as other essential components of the system were quietly squeezed and starved for resources. [Read more…]

***Bonus video for the week:  Advocacy groups pan Tillis’ rigorous proposal to provide undocumented youth with legal status

News

Charlotte activist who removed SC Confederate flag barred from Asheville school speech

Bree Newsome, the Charlotte activist who rose to national prominence in 2015 after scaling a 30-foot pole to remove a Confederate flag on the South Carolina statehouse grounds, was scheduled to speak to students at Asheville Middle School this week. But the event has been cancelled, with the school system citing a policy barring any speaker who “advocates unconstitutional or illegal acts or procedures.”

The community is rallying around Newsome and offering her alternative venues, according to a report from the Citizen-Times newspaper in Asheville.

From their story:

Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, the Asheville-Buncombe County NAACP president, said she was shocked to hear that Newsome’s speaking event was canceled because of her civil disobedience arrest. She said Newsome’s message is important, regardless of that.

“Bree brings a more in-depth analysis of what the Confederate flag stands for,” Ramos-Kennedy said. “She didn’t just climb up the pole to remove the flag; she knows what it means to people of color and to people of different religions.”

Asheville City Schools did not provide comment other than referring to their policy on visiting speakers that states: “In no instance shall a speaker who advocates unconstitutional or illegal acts or procedures be permitted to address students and no presentation or activities considered inconsistent with constitutional requirements or other applicable legal standards will be permitted.”

Ashley Thublin, communications director at Asheville City Schools, said the policy refers to Newsome’s brush with the law.

Ramos-Kennedy said, “What’s more American than civil disobedience?”

In the wake of the announcement, other schools and community groups in the area have stepped forward saying they would welcome Newsome if given the chance to host her.

Catherine McClain, head of Hanger Hall School for Girls, said she would be honored to have Newsome speak to her students.

“Middle school ages are a time when girls are defining who they are going to be and what kinds of citizens they are hoping to become,” McClain said.

McClain emphasized that she wants her students to have women to look up to who are passionate about their work, like Newsome, whom she said could help educate students about different sides of political issues facing minorities.

In response to whether or not someone with an arrest record should be allowed to speak to students, McClain said that should not lessen the value of what they have to say.

“There have been any number of people who have been arrested for being part of a protest, so I don’t think that negates the value of their message,” McClain said.

The school system’s policy would have prevented speeches by American civil rights luminaries like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and U.S. Rep. John Lewis – all of whom broke laws and were arrested as part of their activism.

Newsome took action in South Carolina days after the horrific mass shooting at a Charleston church in which white supremacist Dylan Roof killed nine and injured three.

South Carolina lawmakers later decided to removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds themselves.

Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Web of local money, political connections behind legislature’s decision to bypass DEQ in GenX clean-up

The fire is elusive, but the smoke is thick.

An analysis of professional and political relationships among major players in the GenX crisis shows the connections that led to a controversial state appropriation made by state lawmakers during the most recent special legislative session in House Bill 56, and a contract between the Cape Fear utility and a public relations firm.

It’s not unusual for state lawmakers to have deep political connections to major donors and operatives in their districts. But these connections could wind up diverting badly needed money away from an underfunded state agency to a public utility beset by scandal.

House Bill 56 has several contentious provisions, among them, the puzzling last-minute gift of $185,000 from conservative lawmakers to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA). The utility knew about the GenX contamination at its Sweeney drinking water plant in May 2016, according to a timeline it provided, but did not alert state environmental authorities. [Read more….]

Bonus reads:

2. More with less: With $3 million in the balance, initial AG cuts take effect

Changes from a $7 million budget cut to the North Carolina Department of Justice went into effect September 1 and as expected, people are making do with less.

“The work is still getting done,” said Laura Brewer, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, adding that employees are committed to doing the work and serving the public.

The General Assembly cut $10 million from the DOJ budget, which is operated by Attorney General Josh Stein. The cut wasn’t in either the initial Senate or House budget but was added at the last minute before a final vote was taken on the FY2018-19 budget.

It was unexpected and has been viewed by many as a partisan move because Stein is a Democrat. Stein has repeatedly refused to speculate about the political nature of the massive budget cut and has instead expressed grave concern for the safety of North Carolinians if he is forced to keep cutting. [Read more….]

3. North Carolina conservatives must disavow allies’ bigoted hate speech
Website with ties to Civitas Institute promotes anti-Semitic attack on Attorney General Stein

There are a lot of deeply troubling and even shocking aspects to the ongoing rise in “white nationalism” and religious bigotry that plagues the American political landscape these days. First and foremost, of course, is the active participation of the president of the United States in the process. That the highest office in our land is being used in such a perverted way to aid and abet such a noxious cause remains a stunning and unacceptable reality that should sicken all people of good will on a daily basis.

Almost as disturbing as the behavior of Trump and the coterie of bigots with whom he associates at the national level, however, is the real world experience of confronting such behavior close to home. Increasingly, acts, viewpoints and arguments that most of us thought had been relegated to the dustbin of history are now rearing their ugly heads in public places – even places connected to and promoted by “responsible conservatives.”

On Monday of this week, just such a disturbing occurrence took place in North Carolina on a website supported and funded by one of the state’s most visible conservative groups.[Read more….]

4. Charter takeovers met with skepticism as director begins pitching model

Eric Hall, in the midst of a rainy drive to rural Robeson County to pitch North Carolina’s ambitious but controversial plan for a charter takeover of several low-performing schools, wants to set one thing straight.

“It’s not a takeover,” he says of the so-called Innovative School District (ISD) that he leads. “It’s about making conditions better locally.”

Hall seems well aware of the skepticism surrounding the model, once dubbed the “Achievement School District” but given a new name this year after rocky beginnings for similar efforts in states like Tennessee and Louisiana grabbed headlines.

Last week, Hall’s office released a list of 48 low-performing schools spread across 21 districts, the lion’s share situated in high-poverty locales. Each of them will be eligible for the first year of Hall’s district, which will launch with two schools in 2018-2019 and another three in 2019-2020.

Now he begins a slew of community meetings with local district leaders in places like Robeson County, home to five of the schools that made the state’s list. All reported performance grades in the bottom 5 percent statewide, and none met or exceeded academic growth goals in the last three years. [Read more…]

5. Author of new book on tragic 1991 Hamlet chicken plant fire: Little of substance has changed

Twenty six years ago, one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history rocked the tiny town of Hamlet, North Carolina.

Twenty five workers died and 55 were injured when a grease fire broke out at the Imperial Food Products plant, which made cheap chicken tenders for chain restaurants like Long John Silvers. The victims, mostly black and female, struggled to get out of the building but found the doors locked from the outside. The plant’s owner, Emmett J. Roe, kept the doors padlocked and the windows boarded because he thought his low-wage workers might steal chicken.

Some struggled desperately to kick the doors open, leaving indentations in the steel before being burned to death or succumbing to smoke inhalation. Others tried to huddle in a large walk-in freezer to avoid the blaze, where they nearly froze before suffocating.

In the aftermath of the fire, state and federal investigators found the building had no fire alarms, no sprinklers — nothing that could be considered a fire exit. It had never undergone a safety inspection. [Read more….]

***Upcoming event on Tuesday, September 26th: NC Policy Watch presents a special Crucial Conversation luncheon: Prof. Bryant Simon discusses his new book, “The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government and Cheap Lives”

News

Free speech controversy brewing at Elon University

One of North Carolina’s preeminent private colleges is ground zero this week for a fascinating controversy over censorship and freedom of the press. 

The university’s student-run news network published a stirring editorial this week documenting claims that efforts were made to bar student reporters and photographers from documenting a recent panel discussion of last month’s racial tumult in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While the editorial did not name the individual or individuals who attempted to do so, the piece makes for a fascinating example of the tension that sometimes exists between student reporters and institutions of higher education.

From Elon News Network:

Freedom of speech and press are foundational rights that must be protected in order to uphold a democratic society. While Elon University is a private institution, those protections should still be applied to students.

Last week, a reporter and a photographer for Elon News Network arrived at Whitley Auditorium to cover a panel discussion on the protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Once there, the reporter was told that she would not be permitted to film any part of the discussion, and the photographer was told not to take pictures.

Later, ENN published a web article about the panel, including the names of the panelists and quotes from the discussion. The reporter was then asked to take down the names of the panelists and delete the photos used.

But, several notable faculty and staff members and academic departments tweeted quotes and photos from the panel. It was also promoted via email by the university, including the names of the panelists and some of their headshots.

So why then was student media censored?

The protests in Charlottesville are relevant to our campus and Elon students should be able to learn more about what happened from this panel. The panel itself discussed free speech and the difficulties journalists face while reporting. To bar student journalists from covering that event directly conflicts with the overall message.

If administrators begin keeping student media from events like this, who’s to say what other events or stories the university can try to censor?

The students, faculty and staff at Elon need student media organizations to spread inform the public. The university is doing a disservice to the Elon community by trying to keep students from informing their peers about issues and events on campus.

Keeping students from covering events such as the one last week goes against our university’s commitment to experiential learning and free speech. Students should not be kept from reporting on public panels and events on campus.

News

Republican-backed campus free speech bill stalls in N.C. House committee, for now

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

[Note: This story has been updated] A Republican-shepherded bill aimed at curtailing UNC campus protests of conservative speakers hit some snags in the state House Wednesday.

When voting wrapped, members of the House Education Committee on Universities were deadlocked in a 6-6 tie on partisan lines over House Bill 527, legislation backed by influential Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

The bill requires neutrality from UNC universities and, notably, prohibits campus protests that, according to the draft, “infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”

It also opens a new pathway for lawsuits against universities and creates a so-called Committee on Free Expression appointed by the UNC Board of Governors, which would prepare annual reports for the state.

A tie vote means the motion fails, but the bill will remain in committee where it could be brought for another vote in the coming days. Of course, with the legislature’s April 27 crossover deadline approaching, the vote will have to take place quickly.

Meanwhile, a companion version of the bill in the state Senate is currently assigned to a clogged Rules & Operations Committee, with no clear schedule for when it will be debated.

Still, the legislation has emerged as a rallying point for conservatives like Forest who say conservative speeches have been stifled by protesters on UNC campuses.

House Democrats on Wednesday found a surprising ally in UNC Senior Vice President and General Counsel Tom Shanahan, who represents the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors and UNC System President Margaret Spellings.

Shanahan told lawmakers the university does not believe the legislation is necessary, later agreeing with suggestions that it may “dampen” free speech on campuses.

“Our staff on our campuses work with students every day to help them be able to protest, get their thoughts out and debate,” said Shanahan.

Wednesday’s vote failed despite arguments from GOP lawmakers that the campus free speech bill would not have a “chilling” effect on free speech for university professors and students.

“The legislation is extremely straight forward in its intent to preserve and restore free speech,” said Rep. Chris Millis, R-Onslow, Pender, a co-sponsor of the House bill.

Committee Democrats, however, suggested the bill was simply not necessary, asking for specific examples of individuals denied First Amendment rights on UNC campuses.

Read more